The story of the Tower of Babel is included in Scripture for a reason, right? So, Why is it there? How does the tower of Babel fit into God’s redemptive plans and purposes?
These are questions we should think to ask. In fact, Scripture is designed, according the Hebrew thinking, to invite us to ask questions.
Western thinking might assume that we just take things on faith and don’t ask questions. Or the opposite: take it at face value and dismiss it when we find problems (“contradictions”) in the text.
God wants us to seek Him, and that includes asking questions of Scripture, wrestling with it, and finding answers to our questions. We don’t exhibit a lack of faith when we find problems in Scripture and ask questions.
We can hold to a high view of Scripture and admit there are “problems” in the text . Those problems may lead to some real gems in the answers they reveal.
God desires us to seek him and find him, as Paul says to the philosophers in Athens. (Acts17:27) Jesus, of course, promised that those who ask, seek, and knock will be answered, will find, and the door will be open to them. (Matthew 7:7) Faith enters when we use the problems we see as the springboard to seek answers.
I recently wrote an article on the Tower of Babel story exploring some of the questions it invites us to ask, and trying on answers that are suggested by a more eastern (Hebrew) mindset than most westerners might be adopt.
One question we might ask is: why is the story there to begin with?
We might assume the story is simply an explanation for how people became scattered all over the world in different language groups. How questions, though, miss the most important meaning of Scripture. If we stop there, and assume there is no more to know, we may be missing the most important part of the story.
A Hebrew (or eastern) mind always asks, “Why?”
I resonate with this basic practice incorporated into the BEMA Podcast because of a Jewish professor I had in college. He explained one day the difference between the western and eastern approaches to Scripture. He illustrated it with the following example.
If the universe consisted of a chair in a room, people with western minds and eastern minds would approach the chair differently. The westerner would measure the height, width, depth and mass of the chair. He would weigh it and measure the distance of the chair from the walls and the ceiling. The easterner (the Hebrew) would start by asking, “Why is the chair here?”
In my previous article, I discussed how the story is a chiasm (a type of poetry). A chiasm puts emphasis on the middle verse. In this story, the emphasis is on the people’s desire to “make a name for ourselves” because “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the earth”. (Gen. 11:4)
Why were they concerned about being scattered? Why does God care? What is God doing in confusing their languages and scattering them?
For starters, God does not break into the story when they are making bricks. God isn’t threatened or concerned about their development of new technology. He doesn’t break into the story until they say they are going to build a tower to make a name for themselves.
We also need to be mindful, always, of context. The context here is that people are moving away from God, away from his plans. (Moving east.) God wanted them to multiply and fill the earth, but they wanted to put down roots in the plains of Shinar (Babylon) and build a tower to exalt themselves, lest they be scattered.
This was the instruction from God to Adam and Eve. It was the instruction from God to Noah. God said, “Multiply and fill the earth.”
Building a tower to make a name for themselves, in this context, means wanting to pursue their own plans to achieve their own ends. The concern about being scattered suggests they knew they were doing their own thing contrary to God’s plans for them. They might have feared being scattered because it would disrupt their plans.
Maybe they thought God couldn’t scatter them if they built a fortified tower. Maybe they were trying to make God deal with them on their own terms, in a location they established, by a structure by which they thought could ascend to God and control where God met with them.
Of course, God did exactly what they feared, and scattered them. against their wishes. But why? Was God threatened by them? Um…., no. So why did God scatter them?
I believe the answer lies partly in the fact that they were pursuing their own plans in exultation of themselves. Their plans were not consistent with God’s plans, and they knew it (thus, there fear of being scattered for doing it).
God had other plans, and God frustrated their plans that were not in keeping with His plans. That might all seem arbitrary unless we keep asking questions and seeking answers. Why were the peoples’ plans something God couldn’t abide?
They interfered with God’s plans, but how? What were God’s plans?
The story invites us to give God the benefit of the doubt (and trust Him). The answers can be coaxed out of the stories as they unfold in the Bible.
The previous story (Noah’s ark) ended with God saying he would never again destroy the earth, but people were tending toward evil and wickedness again.
The people were moving east again (symbolically away from God). What was God to do?
In the next story, the story of Abram (later to be known as Abraham), we find God choosing a person willing to listen, willing to be obedient, willing to be selfless, and willing to trust God, through whom God would bless all the families of the earth. Thus, we learn God’s ultimate plan is to bless all the families of the earth.
We also find that the blessing comes through trusting God, submitting to God and to His purposes, even when we don’t understand exactly what God is doing. This is what Abram did, and this, it seems, is why God chooses him.
In Act 17:24-27, Paul says,
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”
In the Tower of Babel story, God confused the peoples’ languages, and the people were scattered over all the earth. God confusing the languages, perhaps, led to the people separating and moving away from each other
Paul, who certainly knew his Torah, says that God did more then scatter the people; He “marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands”. God did it, says Paul, “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him”.
So, God’s purposes in doing these things is so that people would seek (search for, desire, require, demand) Him and, perhaps, reach out (“feel their way toward“, in the Hebrew, to feel, touch, handle; feel after, grope) for Him. How does it work that confusing and scattering people accomplishes His purpose?
One more point, and then I will try to bring this thought process to a resolution: Jesus said the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbor. Thus, people seeking God, loving him, and loving their neighbors is central to God’s plans.
So, again, how are these ends – that people would love God and love their neighbors – be accomplished by God confusing languages, scattering people and marking out their appointed times and boundaries?
If we trust God and trust the story, we will look for the answers.
“[A]nyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb. 11:6)
In the previous article, we considered Romans 8:20-21, says that God subjected the creation to frustration … in hope (that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay). We understand that this is part of the story also: that the frustration we feel in the confusion of languages, the hardship of our toil in the earth, the barriers we feel between people is part of the plan.
Romans 8 describes the redemptive plans of God and reveals that the futility to which God subjected the earth is part of that redemptive plan. Our frustration, toil and separation from other people are not contrary to the purposes of God, but part of the plan.
Languages were confused, people were scattered, times and boundaries were set, the whole creation was subjected to frustration… in hope. The hope is that people would be motived to “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him”. (Acts 17:27) The hope is that people would learn to Love God. The hope is that we would learn to love each other.
Something about the frustration to which the creation has been subjected, together with the eternity God set in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) drives men to seek God. Likewise, something about the scattering, the disparate times and the boundaries that separate people motivates them to reach across those barriers and seek each other out – to learn to love our neighbors.
Jesus, or course, is at the heart of this plan. “In Christ, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:19 (ESV)) Christ is now our peace, breaking down the “wall of hostility” between people. (Eph. 2:14 (ESV))
Only now, we are invited to come together in fulfilment of God’s plans and purposes, and not our own. To seek God and find Him, we must learn understand who He is, to trust Him, to love Him, to submit to His plans.
To come together across the barriers that divide us, we must learn to love our neighbors. We must seek them out, to learn their languages, to learn their cultures, to turn our focus on them and off of us – to love them.
As I have been thinking and chewing on these things, I came across the Xiaomanyc 小马在纽约 YouTube page. Xiaoma is an American, a New York City native named Ari, a “white guy”, who loves languages. He speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, and other far east dialects, and he surprises people and connects with them by learning their languages.
New York City is a great place to do this. The reactions are priceless. In the following video, he learns Yoruba, a Nigerian dialect, and connections with Nigerians in New York City. Notice how they react:
It’s amazing how connecting with people in their native tongue changes things. People appreciate the effort. It’s an instant connection. Watch how speaking Navajo breaks down barriers in this video:
The last video I link below involves Xiaoma connecting with Chinese New Yorkers in Mandarin, which is surprising enough. Then he speaks to them in Fuzhounese, a relatively rare Chinese dialect. The surprise changes to instant warmth and appreciation.
These examples bring home to me the power of considering others, treating others as we would want to be treated – loving them. Few things do this as much in this regard as the effort to learn a person’s native tongue, appreciating their food and expressing genuine, heartfelt interest in their culture.
Perhaps, God knew what He was doing in confusing peoples’ languages and scattering them!
If we understand that the confusion, scattering, appointing times and setting boundaries was meant as obstacles for us to overcome, we develop a completely different perspective. Scripture links these things together with God’s ultimate plan to bring people back together in Christ – to bless all families through the seed of Abraham.